US accuses Russia of cover up of Syria’s chemical weapons attacks over watchdog vote

The US has accused Russia of trying to cover up chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian government after Moscow voted to freeze funding for a global watchdog.

Russia voted on Thursday to block next year’s budget for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) over objections that money would go to an investigative team with beefed up powers to apportion blame for attacks.

Previously, investigators only had the scope to determine whether a chemical assault had occurred.

The new team – the Identification and Investigation Team (IIT) – will deliver its first report early next year, in which it will identify the perpetrators of an assault in Syria.

More than 40 people were killed in Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital Damascus then held by rebels, on April 7 last year.

The US, Britain and France retaliated a week later by firing missiles at Syrian government targets, the biggest Western military action against the Damascus authorities of the eight-year-old war.

An OPCW report released in March found that a toxic chemical containing chlorine was used.

Syria and Russia, the regime’s biggest backer, deny there was a chemical attack in Douma, saying the event was staged using bodies brought from elsewhere, and that the OPCW’s report was doctored to justify Western military intervention.

Western diplomats say the Russians and Syrians are trying to muddy the waters about alleged attacks by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Russia and the US traded barbs at a tense annual meeting of the OPCW’s 193 member countries in The Hague.

The US accused Moscow of helping Syria conceal the use of banned toxic munitions in the civil war by undermining the work of the global chemical weapons agency’s work.

"Unfortunately the Russian Federation has played a central role in this cover-up," Kenneth Ward, the US representative to the OPCW, told delegates. “Irreversible damage to arms control would be done if the international community ignored the fact that chemical weapons are being used in Syria,” he continued.

“This will cause irreversible damage, not only to this organisation, but to the entire non-proliferation system.”

Alexander Shulgin, Russia’s Ambassador to the OPCW, replied: "It is exquisite rhetoric… But these assertions do not hold water.”

He repeated objections to the creation of the IIT and compared the organisation, which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 to a "Titanic sinking", accusing it of becoming too politicised.

"If the financing for the IIT comes out of voluntary contributions (the annual budget paid for by member states) then this will mean one thing only," Mr Shulgin told the meeting.

"It will mean that the backers are going to hire so-called investigators looking at chemical crimes, they will be hired to draw up conclusions which suit the ends of the sponsors."

The 2020 budget was passed in the end with 107 member countries voting in favour and 19 against, including Russia and China.

Syria criticised the budget’s approval, saying it "rejected the political blackmail by the United States and its western allies."

Syria’s representative also vowed not to cooperate with the IIT’s investigations.

A Twitter account belonging to the UK representative, meanwhile, wrote that it was "a clear signal of support for the organisation & its essential work, including in tackling impunity for cw (chemical weapons) use."

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